“And there seemed to be no way whatever to remove this cloud that stood between them and the sun, between them and love and life and power, between them and whatever it was they wanted.” -James Baldwin
Today I woke up confused. In my foggy, sleepy state, I turned on NPR, as I do every morning, and I heard about cops killing a black man under (to put it mildly) questionable circumstances. But this was the same news I woke up to yesterday; this didn’t make any sense. Then it dawned on me: this was a different story. Different, of course, only because the names and location have changed. Otherwise, yes, the story was exactly the same.
I know it’s important to speak out. I know silence is acceptance and I refuse to accept this. My level of helplessness, however, increases every time I hear the words “black man fatally shot by police.” It’s a terrible exchange, this fear and despair that is given life anew for every black life unjustly taken.
I think I don’t know how to speak out anymore. I wanted to write about these two men, Mr. Sterling and Mr. Castile, to honor them in some tiny way, to voice my outrage and sadness. But there isn’t anything new for me to say. The story is exactly the same.
Last year, while grappling with my feelings over another murdered black man, I wrote this piece. I’m reposting it today because I can’t figure out what else to say.
The Thing About Black Men In This Country
The thing about black men in this country is that you were taught to be afraid of them. It’s the best kind of teaching, the kind where you have learned something when you weren’t even aware you were being taught. You didn’t know that every time you saw a black man playing the villain in a movie this was part of your lesson. You didn’t know you were learning when your mom, while driving with you in the car, made sure the doors were locked when she saw a black man nearby. You didn’t know when you watched Cops on TV, sometimes even laughing at it, that you were telling yourself, “This is how black men act.” You didn’t think, when you saw them rioting, that they damn well had something to be rioting about. No, by this time you had already learned what they were: Uneducated. Lazy. Thugs. Gang bangers. Drug users. Scary. Sure, it’s fun to watch them play basketball, but you better cross the street if you see one when you’re walking home at night.
The thing about black men in this country is that they were kidnapped from their homes. Enslaved. Beaten. Sold. Names stolen. Kept from being educated. Kept from their families. Kept from earning wages. Hanging from the trees with less concern than the morning’s laundry hanging on the clothesline.
“But that was over 100 years ago,” you say.
“They need to get over it,” you say.
“If they would just stop harping on the past!”
The thing about black men in this country is that even when we told them they were free, that was a bald-faced lie. Freedom came in not being allowed to vote. Freedom came in being told where to live. Told where to work. Where to eat. Where to shop. Even where to shit.
The thing about black men in this country is we made sure they knew their place. We made sure they knew they were worthless. Made sure they dare not have the audacity to pretend they possessed any dignity. “You keep your head down when you’re talking to me, boy.” We made sure they knew they could be falsely accused of the most mundane crime, and would still be handed over to the white man like some first place trophy from a catch-the-darky game.
“But, oh, that was so long ago,” you say.
“Things are different now,” you say.
“We have a black president!”
The thing about black men in this country is that they start out like the rest of us, loved beyond measure by their mamas. They turn into those cute little boys- you know the ones who prove how un-racist you are because you couldn’t possibly find them so adorable and be prejudice- then they grow up and get killed by the police. Or chained to a truck and dragged down a road in Jasper, Texas until their head snaps off. Or they get shot up by some white man because they invited him in to pray.
“They should just cooperate with the cops,” you say.
“You should see the statistics for black on black crime,” you say.
“But those white men were mentally ill!”
The thing about black men in this country is that we gave them the lowest possible standards for living and the highest possible burden for proving that their lives mean anything.
The thing about black men in this country is that we will continue to fail them over and over again, and then force them to take the responsibility.
The thing about black men in this country is that they cannot continue to live like this, stuck in this world of seemingly never-ending racism.
The thing about black men in this country is that we can, we must, do better by them. This country will not be whole until we do.